Using Backward Design for Course Planning

In all the years the Innovative Instructor has been blogging, we have not had a post dedicated to the concept of Backward Design. It’s long past time to correct this omission.

Diagram showing the three phases of Backward Design: Identify desired results, Determine acceptable evidence, Plan learning experiences and instruction.Backward Design is a framework for course design. With Backward Design an instructor starts course planning by identifying desired learning outcomes with the articulation of course goals and learning objectives. Assessment of those goals and objectives is determined, and finally, appropriate learning activities and instruction are developed.

Traditionally, faculty have approached course design by considering teaching the content first, striving to fit material into a set number of lectures and/or in-class activities, then developing assignments and tests, and finally grading students. This approach focuses on what the teacher wants to do, so it is instructor-centric.

The term Backward Design comes from starting course planning by thinking about what the instructor wants students to know and be able to do at the end of the course and working backward from there. In spite of the name, Backward Design is forward thinking—promoting intentional planning to create assessments and course activities that support the desired learning outcomes. Backward Design is student-centric in that the process starts by thinking about what students should be able to do.

Backward design focuses on the process of learning, encouraging the instructor to think intentionally about how in-class activities and assessment will ensure that the course goals and learning objectives are met. Faculty may find it challenging to think about the learning process instead of course content. They are experts in the latter, but may not be comfortable with the former. Backward Design helps instructors determine what material is necessary for students to meet the stated learning objectives. This makes it easier to decide what content to include and what is not as important. It is more efficient as well. When an instructor is clear about the desired student learning outcomes, assessing those outcomes, and determining the class activities and related course materials needed to obtain those outcomes will be clearer as well.  Another benefit of using Backward Design is that students appreciate the inherent transparency. When an instructor shares course goals and objectives, their students know what is expected of them. The alignment of learning objectives and learning assessments gives students clarity.

Instructors planning a course should ask themselves three questions:

  1. What do you want students to be able to do? (Course Learning Goals and Objectives)
  2. How will you measure if students can do that? (Aligned Assessment)
  3. How will you prepare students for assessments? (Design Instruction)

Writing good course learning goals (expectations of what students should be able to do by the end of the course) and effective learning objectives (explicit statements that describe what the students will be able to do at the end of each class or course module) is the first step in the Backward Design process. (See previous Innovative Instructor blog posts Writing Course Learning Goals and Writing Effective Learning Objectives.)

Next, what evidence is needed to determine that students have met the course goals? The performance tasks or assessments chosen should be appropriate to the level of the course. Bloom’s taxonomy is a useful tool for aligning the level of the course with appropriate assessment. (See the Innovative Instructor post A Guide to Bloom’s Taxonomy.)  For example, for an introductory level course, course goals are more likely to focus on remembering and understanding. Tests/exams that focus on asking students to identify, define, label, list, order (remembering) or calculate, describe, discuss, summarize, explain (understanding) will be appropriate. In a senior level seminar or design course students might be assigned papers, comprehensive projects, or creative tasks where they must argue, assess, debate, evaluate, defend (evaluation) or compose, construct, design, hypothesize, show, write (creation). Learning objectives, related to units or modules within the course, may be assessed by quizzes, homework assignments, problem sets, or short papers depending on the level of the course. Self-assessments and student reflections may also be useful.

Finally, appropriate instruction can be designed for the course. Instruction should be tailored to ensure that students are prepared for assessments. Keep in mind that the more engaged students are, the more likely it is that they will learn. Active learning strategies help ensure student engagement.

Backward Design can be an iterative process.  As you develop your assessments you may find you need to refine your objectives.  Similarly, as you design your instruction you may generate creative ideas on how to assess students that lead you to change your original assessment plan.

Course instruction may take a number of different formats—lectures, seminars, labs, discussion sessions, studio and design classes, research or project-oriented studies to name a few. Other variables include class size and room arrangements. For courses with large enrollments scheduled in auditoriums, lecturing tends to be used more frequently. But lectures that include active learning strategies such as the effective use of clickers, think-pair-share activities, and peer learning will more likely engage students. For labs and smaller courses, consider using strategies such as authentic learning, case studies, team-based learning, community-based or project-based learning to engage students.

Adopting a new strategy for course design may seem daunting, but Backward Design offers a more efficient, transparent, and effective approach for instructors and their students. By focusing on learning outcomes rather than course content, instructors using Backward Design may improve both student learning and their teaching.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Backward_design

Writing Course Learning Goals

Today’s post is timely—many instructors are putting together syllabi for fall courses. This year, Johns Hopkins’ faculty who teach undergraduates are being urged to include course learning goals in their syllabi. Mike Reese, Associate Dean and Director of the Center for Educational Resources (CER), and Richard Shingles, a lecturer in Biology and Pedagogy Specialist in the CER, and created an Innovative Instructor print series article as an aid, shared below. If you are looking for other information on creating effective syllabi, type syllabus in the search box for this blog to see previous articles on the topic. Another resource for writing course learning goals is Arizona State University’s free Online Objectives Builder. It runs instructors through a logical process for creating course goals and objectives. Take the short tutorial and you are on your way.

 

Graphic illustration of three lit light bulbs.

What are course learning goals and why do they matter?

Effective teaching starts with thoughtful course planning. The first step in preparing a course is to clearly define your course learning goals. These goals describe the broad, overarching expectations of what students should be able to do by the end of the course, specifically what knowledge students should possess and/or what skills they should be able to demonstrate. Instructors use goals to design course assignments and assessments, and to determine what teaching methods will work best to achieve the desired outcomes.

Course learning goals are important for several reasons. They communicate the instructor’s expectations to students on the syllabus. They guide the instructor’s selection of appropriate teaching approaches, resources, and assignments. Learning goals inform colleagues who are teaching related or dependent courses. Similarly, departments can use them to map the curriculum. Departmental reviews of the learning goals ensure prerequisite courses teach the skills necessary for subsequent courses, and that multiple courses are not unnecessarily teaching redundant skills.

Once defined, the overarching course learning goals should inform the class-specific topics and teaching methods. Consider an example goal: At the end of the course, students will be able to apply social science data collection and analysis techniques. Several course sessions or units will be needed to teach students the knowledge and skills necessary to meet this goal. One class session might teach students how to design a survey; another could teach them how to conduct a research interview.

A syllabus usually includes a learning goals section that begins with a statement such as, “At the end of this course, students will be able to:” that is followed by 4-6 learning goals clearly defining the skills and knowledge students will be able to demonstrate.

Faculty should start with a general list of course learning goals and then refine the list to make the goals more specific. Edit the goals by taking into consideration the different abilities, interests, and expectations of your students and the amount of time available for class instruction. How many goals can your students accomplish over the length of the course? Consider including non-content goals such as skills that are important in the field.

Content goal: Analyze the key forces that influenced the rise of Japan as an economic superpower.
Non-content goal: Conduct a literature search.

The following list characterizes clearly-defined learning goals. Consider these suggestions when drafting goals.

Specific – Concise, well-defined statements of what students will be able to do.
Measurable – The goals suggest how students will be assessed. Use action verbs that can be observed through a test, homework, or project (e.g., define, apply, propose).

Non-measurable goal: Students will understand Maxwell’s Equations.
Measurable goal: Students will be able to apply the full set of Maxwell’s Equations to different events/situations.

Attainable – Students have the pre-requisite knowledge and skills and the course is long enought that students can achieve the goals.
Relevant – The skills or knowledge described are appropriate for the course or the program in which the course is embedded.
Time-bound – State when students should be able to demonstrate the skill (end of the course, end of semester, etc.).

The most difficult aspect of writing learning goals for most instructors is ensuring the goals are measurable and attainable. In an introductory science course, students may be expected to recall or describe basic facts and concepts. In a senior humanities course, students may be expected to conduct deep critical analysis and synthesis of themes and concepts. There are numerous aids online that suggest action verbs to use when writing learning goals that are measurable and achievable. These aids are typically structured by Bloom’s Taxonomy – a framework for categorizing educational goals by their challenge level. Below is an example of action verbs aligned with Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Chart showing verbs aligned with Bloom's Taxonomy levels.

Avoid vague verbs like “understand” or “know” because it can be difficult to come to consensus about how the goal can be measured. Think more specifically about what students should be able to demonstrate.

Here are examples of learning goals for several different disciplines using a common introductory statement. “By the end of this course, students will be able to do the following…

“Propose a cognitive neuroscience experiment that justifies the choice of question, experimental method and explains the logic of the proposed approach.” (Cognitive Science)
“Articulate specific connections between texts and historical, cultural, artistic, social and political contexts.” (German and Romance Languages and Literature)
“Design and conduct experiments.” (Chemistry)
“Design a system to meet desired needs within realistic constraints such as economic, environmental, social, political, ethical, health and safety, manufacturability, and sustainability.” (Biomedical Engineering)

Additional Resources
Bloom’s Taxonomy article. http://cer.jhu.edu/files/InnovInstruct-BP_blooms-taxonomy-action-speakslouder.pdf
Blog post on preparing a syllabus. http://ii.library.jhu.edu/2017/02/23/lunch-and-learn-constructing-acomprehensive-syllabus

Authors
Richard Shingles
, Lecturer, Biology Department, JHU
Dr. Richard Shingles is a faculty member in the Biology department and also works with the Center for Educational Resources at Johns Hopkins University. He is the Director of the TA Training Institute and The Teaching Institute at JHU. Dr. Shingles also provides pedagogical and technological support to instructional faculty, postdocs and graduate students.
Michael J. Reese Jr., Associate Dean and Director, CER
Mike Reese is Associate Dean of University Libraries and Director of the Center for Educational Resources. He has a PhD from the Department of Sociology at Johns Hopkins University.

Images source: © 2017 Reid Sczerba, Center for Educational Resources

Writing Effective Learning Objectives

Illustration of a light bulb with the word goals forming the filament and being written by a hand holding a pencil.Effective teaching depends upon effective planning and design. The first step in preparing a high quality course is to clearly define your educational goals, which are the broad, overarching expectations for student learning and performance at the end of your course. (See The Innovative Instructor post: Writing Course Learning Goals) Next is to determine your learning objectives by writing explicit statements that describe what the student(s) will be able to do at the end of each class or course unit. This includes the concepts they need to learn, and the skills they need to acquire and be able to apply.

Developing learning objectives is part of the instructional design framework known as Backward Design, a student-centric approach that aligns learning objectives with assessment and instruction.

Clearly defined objectives form the foundation for selecting appropriate content, learning activities and assessment plans. Learning objectives help you to:

  • plan the sequence for instruction, allocate time to topics, assemble materials and plan class outlines.
  • develop a guide to teaching allowing you to plan different instructional methods for presenting different parts of the content. (e.g. small group discussions of a common misconception).
  • facilitate various assessment activities including assessing students, your instruction, and the curriculum.

Think about what a successful student in your course should be able to do on completion. Questions to ask are: What concepts should they be able to apply? What kinds of analysis should they be able to perform? What kind of writing should they be able to do? What types of problems should they be solving? Learning objectives provide a means for clearly describing these things to learners, thus creating an educational experience that will be meaningful.

Following are strategies for creating learning objectives.

I. Use S.M.A.R.T. Attributes

Learning objectives should have the following S.M.A.R.T. attributes.

Specific – Concise, well-defined statements of what students will be able to do.
Measurable – The goals suggest how students will be assessed. Start with action verbs that can be observed through a test, homework, or project (e.g., define, apply, propose).
Attainable – Students have the pre-requisite knowledge and skills and the course is long enough that students can achieve the objectives.
Relevant – The skills or knowledge described are appropriate for the course or the program in which the course is embedded.
Time-bound – State when students should be able to demonstrate the skill (end of the course, end of semester, etc.).

II. Use Behavioral Verbs

Another useful tip for learning objectives is to use behavioral verbs that are observable and measurable. Fortunately, Bloom’s taxonomy provides a list of such verbs and these are categorized according to the level of achievement at which students should be performing. (See The Innovative Instructor post: A Guide to Bloom’s Taxonomy) Using concrete verbs will help keep your objectives clear and concise.

Here is a selected, but not definitive, list of verbs to consider using when constructing learning objectives:

assemble, construct, create, develop, compare, contrast, appraise, defend, judge, support, distinguish, examine, demonstrate, illustrate, interpret, solve, describe, explain, identify, summarize, cite, define, list, name, recall, state, order, perform, measure, verify, relate

While the verbs above clearly distinguish the action that should be performed, there are verbs to avoid when writing a learning objective. The following verbs are too vague or difficult to measure:

appreciate, cover, realize, be aware of, familiarize, study, become acquainted with, gain knowledge of, comprehend, know, learn, understand, learn

III. Leverage Bloom’s Taxonomy

Since Blooms taxonomy establishes a framework for categorizing educational goals, having an understanding of these categories is useful for planning learning activities and writing learning objectives.

Examples of Learning Objectives

At end of the [module, unit, course] students will be able to…

… identify and explain major events from the Civil War. (American History)

… effectively communicate information, ideas and proposals in visual, written, and oral forms. (Marketing Communications)

… analyze kinetic data and obtain rate laws. (Chemical Engineering)

…interpret DNA sequencing data. (Biology)

…discuss and form persuasive arguments about a variety of literary texts produced by Roman authors of the Republican period. (Classics)

…evaluate the appropriateness of the conclusions reached in a research study based on the data presented. (Sociology)

…design their own fiscal and monetary policies. (Economics)

Additional Resources

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Richard Shingles, Lecturer, Biology Department

Richard Shingles is a faculty member in the Biology department and also works with the Center for Educational Resources at Johns Hopkins University. He is the Director of the TA Training Institute and The Summer Teaching Institute on the Homewood campus of JHU. Dr. Shingles also provides pedagogical and technological support to instructional faculty, post-docs and graduate students.

Images source: © Reid Sczerba, Center for Educational Resources, 2016